Overthrowing a foreign ruler seemed like a tall order to Jyl for her first day on the job as one of the Queen’s Guard but the seriousness of her commanding officer’s gaze, and the pleasant, confident smile of her sovereign left her little doubt that this was how her tenure was going to begin.
“Our first stop in Paxmer will be at the estate of the Lady Estella sur Korkin,” Dae said, pointing to an area on the map before them that was along Paxmer’s northern coastal region.
The Queen’s Guard, all three of them, were assembled in the Royal Planning and Tactics room. The Queen sat at her usual place at the head of the enormous planning table on the elevated chair from which dozens of her predecessors had surveyed the shifting currents of the world.
Dae stood in the traditional position of the chief strategist; on top of the table, striding across the world as she made her points and called attention to the various areas of concern. The table’s surface was laid out as a near-perfect map of the Blessed Realms and some of the wastelands which bordered them. Usually armies were depicted, or trade routes, but for the meeting with the Queen’s Guard all that was stripped away.
Jyl saw only a handful of location markers on the map and, more worryingly, a set of figures depicting Paxmer’s dragons.
“We will need to travel quietly and without attracting notice,” Dae said. “That will be easy up until we reach here.” She tapped the port city of Windsmer. “We can sail to Paxmer on a merchant ship from the Sunlost Isles. That will get us into Paxmer. Getting to Lady Korkin’s estate is where we will need to exercise more care.”
“If we are to move in secrecy, then how shall I accompany you?” Lady Mayleena Telli asked.
Jyl frowned and considered the question too. May was not the sort of woman who could blend in with a crowd. Even apart from her unusual appearance, May had an aura that was unsettling. Something about how she moved, or breathed, or the noises that she didn’t make was enough to put people on edge. For anyone who was bound to a pact spirit the effect was even stronger.
Jyl had managed to avoid an insulting defensive reaction the first time she met May mostly because the Queen had explained May’s condition and prepared Jyl for what to expect. Since then the two had established a companionable rapport. Jyl’s twin loved to tease and torment her, which had given the young elf nerves of reinforced steel. Dismissing her pact spirit’s otherwise reasonable worries about May was child’s play compared to enduring her sister’s schemes.
“We need to keep our identities a secret,” Dae said. “I’m counting on you to help with that. You’re not going to strike anyone as a Pact Knight, and the more people are paying attention to you, the less they’ll notice either Jyl or I.”
“Pardon, but does that mean that we’re going to have make this trip without calling on our pact spirits at all?” Jyl asked, seeing the endeavor growing a dozen times more challenging than climbing climbing Gallagrin’s tallest mountain.
“See, I told you she was quick,” Dae said, glancing at the queen.
“Yes,” Alari said. “You carry our royal blessing, and Lady Akorli is empowered to speak in our voice, but for our plans to come to fruition no one can know that our Guard is moving against Paxmer until the time is right.”
“Lady sur Korkin is integral to this plan?” May asked.
“That is our hope,” Alari said. “We know that Paxmer has weaknesses. Every country does. Their dragons cover many of those weaknesses but Lady sur Korkin seems to have escaped their notice.”
“Before we discuss this any further though, there’s something you both should know,” Dae said. “Lady sur Korkin is my mother, she has betrayed her family in the past, and I am currently uncertain whether I will kill her when we meet.”
Jyl searched her commander’s face for a hint of humor and found nothing. No smile. No frown. No sign that the Queen’s Knight was anything except blandly serious. She looked to the queen and thought she saw a trace of worry and concern on her monarch’s brow but it was quickly hidden behind a cool, silent expression.
“That will change the parameters of our mission I presume?” May asked, all innocent curiosity.
Given her family life, it was unusual for Jyl to feel like the one sane person in a room, but she was fairly certain that was the case in this instance. The cause of the murderous madness was unclear however (apart from Mayleena who seemed to process things in her own unique manner).
Jyl hadn’t studied her commander’s history beyond what was commonly known; Daelynne Akorli was the childhood friend of the queen, and she’d willing taken a demotion after a fierce attack on a fort under her command. She’d then returned at the queen’s hour of greatest need and slain not only the rogue Duke of Tel but also the treacherous Consort King, beheading him in front of the nobles of the realm. She’d earned the sobriquet “The Bloody Blade” for that action as it was said that when she fully transformed her sword still dripped with royal blood.
“We’ll take a more fluid approach to destabilizing Paxmer if Lady sur Korkin…” Dae searched for the right words, “…provokes me.”
Jyl couldn’t fathom what Lady sur Korkin had done that had left her daughter so casually homicidal. Jyl’s own mother had been a guiding light in her life and had inspired her to be everything she had become. Without that support, Jyl imagined she was be far less put together than the Queen’s Knight seemed to be.
“What does Lady sur Korkin stand to offer us if she proves to be a tractable ally?” May asked, still innocently curious.
“Paxmer is ruled by dragons,” Alari said. “Some of them are giant reptilian beasts, but others walk in human flesh. Regardless their souls are as one. Their strength allows them to gather power to themselves, and dragons in any form do not share power easily.”
“That’s true in both poetic and practical terms,” Dae said. “Paxmer’s nobles are judged based on the size of the hordes they control. To build those hordes they concentrate the wealth of the country into their own hands to the greatest extent possible.”
“Haldri Paxmer knows that her people despise this, but she also knows that with her dragons she can safely ignore them,” Alari said. “Open revolt is impossible as all Paxmer needs to do is strip the rebels of their citizenship and then feed them to a flight of fire breathing monsters.”
“The citizens of Paxmer are as clever as any other nationality though,” Dae said. “So they’ve discovered methods to revolt in secret.”
“Bandit raids have become commonplace in Paxmer,” Alari said. “They strike primarily at the tax collectors and are believed to be amassing hordes of their own.”
“Lady sur Korkin cannot be known to have ties to them though, can she?” Jyl asked. She was familiar with the lengths people who possessed power were willing to go to retain that power.
“She holds no lands, and owns only a single family estate inherited from her father,” Alari said. “From what my agents have been able to discern, she leads a reclusive life and is scrupulous about paying her taxes, but she pays them directly to the Royal Paxmer Exchequer, in person each year.”
“That sounds as though she is quite loyal to the Paxmer crown,” May said.
“No, it doesn’t,” Jyl said, seeing the outline of the picture the Queen was illustrating. “That sounds like someone who doesn’t want to the tax collectors to inspect her estate. How old is the house that she owns?”
“Ancient,” Dae said. “It’s a family dwelling which stretches back to the founding of Paxmer as a nation.”
Jyl looked at the map.
“It’s not close to either the coast or the border,” she said. “The only roads that run by it seem minor too, if the depiction here is right?”
“My agents have confirmed the accuracy of the map in this area,” Alari said.
“The Lady Estella’s family has never been an important one in the political scene of Paxmer,” Dae said. “But they have managed to survive for centuries.”
“Which means they have hidden resources to draw on,” Jyl said.
“And they will draw on them for us?” May asked.
“That is your mission to discover,” Alari said. “If our suspicions are correct, then Lady sur Korkin has been working against the interests of the Paxmer crown for many years now. If we are incorrect, then it is at least very likely that she has contacts with the silent rebels as the number of bandit attacks in the region is low but the capture rate for the bandits is almost non-existent.”
“So someone is helping them coordinate and is ensuring that the area stays beneath the notice of the crown?” Jyl asked.
“Will our arrival be seen as a disruption of that cultivated state?” May asked.
“Yes, to both of your questions,” Alari said. “Disruption is necessary though.”
“That brings us to the Lost Hordes of Paxmer,” Dae said. “It turns out when you have a group of people blinded by goldlust and an obsessive need for secrecy, you occasionally wind up with families who are wiped out without all of their hordes being discovered.”
“We thought rebellions were impossible in Paxmer?” May asked.
“Impossible no. Difficult yes,” Dae said. “Most of the noble families who’ve been lost to history were destroyed by internal struggled with other Paxmer families.”
“No one can hate you like the people who know you best,” Jyl said, thinking of the toxic elements of her own family.
“The Lost Hordes are said to contain vast amounts of forgotten wealth, and, more importantly, certain mythical items,” Alari said.
“The mythical item that we’re most concerned with is the Spirit Crown,” Dae said.
“We are unfamiliar with that myth?” May asked.
“The story goes that there was once a crown given to the sovereign of Gallagrin which granted them absolute command over Pact Spirits,” Dae said. “This was from Gallagrin’s early days when the Royal Pact Spirit was much weaker than it is today and the possibility of revolt by the Pact Warriors of the realm was more of an issue.”
“That’s an artifact level creation. Who could make something like that?” Jyl asked.
“The Sleeping Gods,” Alari said. “Before they slept.”
“Like most other god tools, the crown was lost when the gods descended into their slumber,” Dae said. “Or not so much lost as stolen. The thief didn’t make it far out of Gallagrin before falling victim to further treachery though, and the crown was mistaken for a common piece of simply adorned golden jewelry.”
“You think it’s been rediscovered?” Jyl asked.
“More importantly, we want to make sure Haldri Paxmer does not place her hands on it,” Alari said. “If she were to gain the power to control Pact Spirits, her forces would become truly unstoppable.”
“Why would you believe it could be found in this area of Paxmer?” May asked, indicating the region of the map around Dae’s mother’s estate.
“In addition to the exceptionally low rate of bandit captures, there has been a steady and increasing amount of trade with the Sunlost Isles that has funneled through Windsmer,” Alari said. “The Paxmer people are buying far more than even their successful banditry can account for.”
“Which suggests that someone has found one or more of the Lost Hordes,” Jyl said, filling in the blank.
“And there have been rumors of a particularly deep delve that was opened,” Dae said. “One which holds treasures dating back to beginning of the current era.”
“Even apart from the Spirit Crown, treasures that old would be priceless,” Jyl said, trying to imagine what other relics of the lost age of the gods might be hidden in the depths of Paxmer.
“Oh, I think we can put a price on them,” Dae said. “I think they’ll cover the cost of overthrowing one of the Blessed Realms. We just need to be the ones to find it first.”